Some $5 million in grants went to 11 internet service providers to install broadband in rural Kansas communities. (Photo illustration/Canva)
Some $5 million in grants went to 11 internet service providers to install broadband in rural Kansas communities. (Photo illustration/Canva)

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In years past, the internet speeds at Lisa Hatcher’s home in Liberal, Kansas, were sporadic at best. When all four of her children lived at home and multiple devices tried connecting at the same time, the internet often buffered, if it didn’t drop altogether. Streaming services weren’t an option and the house’s security camera didn’t work because of the poor connection. 

Hatcher tried different wireless options from multiple internet service providers, but even the best provider offered poor speeds, she said. 

“There’s just a lack of consistency,” Hatcher added. “Depending on where you lived in town, you didn’t have very good access.”

With one wireless provider, Hatcher couldn’t get a good connection because her home didn’t have a clear view of the wireless tower. Her next-door neighbor could connect just fine, she added.  

In 2020, EpicTouch, an internet service provider based in Elkhart, Kansas, installed fiber-optic broadband in Hatcher’s neighborhood. There’s no comparison between her home internet speeds before and after the installation, Hatcher said. 

Seward County, where Liberal is the county seat, is one of many rural Kansas counties with poor access to quality broadband. According to BroadbandNow, a website that provides data on internet service providers, 12.9 percent of Kansas residents live in areas where internet speeds are deemed inadequate, and 57 percent of residents lack access to fiber-optic internet services. In Seward County, 57.8 percent of the population has broadband access. 

The Kansas Broadband Acceleration Grant, launched during the 2020 legislative session and funded by the Kansas Department of Transportation’s Eisenhower Legacy Transportation Program, aims to close the gap between Kansans with quality internet and those without. The $85 million, 10-year grant is aimed at incentivizing broadband installation in rural areas. 

Gov. Laura Kelly announced the second round of grant recipients in May. The 11 providers selected received a collective $5 million to install broadband in communities considered economically distressed or unserved by quality internet. EpicTouch received $889,063, the largest grant, to install fiber-optic lines in Liberal.

Why broadband access in rural Kansas is important

Policymakers once considered broadband a luxury rather than a necessity, ​​said Jade Piros de Carvalho, director of the Kansas Office of Broadband Development. High-speed internet has often been associated with entertainment like gaming or streaming services. 

However, Piros de Carvalho said that quality internet is especially valuable in rural communities where it may be required for access to health care and other services. Then the pandemic hit, and many people began working or taking classes from home. 

“I think what the pandemic did is it really highlighted that communities that don’t have broadband aren’t going to be able to innovate in the same way,” Piros de Carvalho said. “They’re not going to be able to grow and thrive.” 

The Office of Broadband Development wasn’t founded until 2020. Prior to the department’s opening, broadband efforts at the state level were limited, and funding was nearly nonexistent. Previously, funding broadband installation was the responsibility of local municipalities. This led to inequitable solutions, Piros de Carvalho said. 

In communities where stakeholders were committed to solving the problem, they would often see greater progress than places where the leadership didn’t consider internet access an issue, she added.  

“Now that we have a directive that’s more unified, and everyone can agree that it’s an issue, it’s just a lot easier,” Piros de Carvalho said. “You’re not spending a lot of time convincing people how important it is, you’re spending the time finding solutions.” 

Melinda Stanley, deputy director of the Office of Broadband Development, said she hopes the broadband grants ensure the state’s rural communities remain vibrant and viable.

Rural communities in Kansas are challenged by rural flight. Census data shows that 80 of the 105 counties in Kansas shrank in population from 2010 to 2020. Most of these counties are rural, whereas urban areas such as Johnson County, the state’s most populous county, saw the most growth. 

Seward County’s population dropped to just under 22,000 residents — a 4.3 percent decrease from 2010. 

Barriers to installing broadband

Poor broadband connection was listed as one of the top three barriers preventing young Kansans from remaining in rural communities, according to a report by the Kansas Sampler Foundation.

There are many reasons rural areas tend to have slower internet speeds compared to urban ones, but cost is a major factor, Stanley said. Despite Kansas’ reputation as a flat state, Stanley added that there are many rocky areas where laying broadband miles can be more difficult and expensive.

Many rural counties in Kansas also have dispersed populations. “You’re hitting just a few households in a square mile instead of a neighborhood,” Stanley said. 

In densely populated communities where providing broadband access to each home costs only a few hundred dollars, the economic incentive to install broadband already exists for internet service providers. But in neighborhoods where houses are fewer and farther apart, providing internet doesn’t make financial sense without private subsidy, Piros de Carvalho said. 

When EpicTouch began laying broadband in Liberal in 2019, it did so using its own investments. In order to recoup the costs, the internet service provider focused primarily on multi-dwelling units where it could reach more customers faster. Receiving the Broadband Acceleration Grant allowed the company to reach more houses at a faster rate than it could on its own, said Becki Richardson, EpicTouch’s project coordinator in Liberal. 

EpicTouch has received $1.4 million in broadband grants — $900,000 this year and $500,000 in the first year of the program — along with matching funds for both years. So far, Richardson said she estimates this money will allow the company to reach around 1,360 structures in Liberal.

Even after the second year of work is finished, not even half of Liberal will be covered, Richardson added. 

“It is definitely a community that is large and behind as far as technology and fiber goes,” Richardson said.

The problems with internet speed data

Like all other communities receiving Broadband Acceleration Grant funds, Seward County is considered unserved by its current internet speeds. Despite this, the FCC’s data labels the area as served, EpicTouch President Becky Scott said.

According to FCC reports, if one person in an area has adequate broadband access, then the entire area is considered covered, said Donna Ginther, director of the University of Kansas Institute for Policy & Social Research. 

The FCC also labels adequate internet as anything with speeds greater than 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 megabits per second for uploads. 

“The state is defining broadband as 100/20 now — 100 down and 20 up,” Ginther said. “And even that may not be sufficient for high-throughput types of uses of the internet.” 

Data on internet speeds is so poor that it’s difficult to make comparisons, Ginther said. A map recently created by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration combines data from multiple sources. Based on the two speed tests included in the NTIA maps, 57 Kansas counties have internet speeds below the FCC’s standards. 

A speed test survey conducted by the Institute for Policy & Social Research found that 1 million residents — or one-third of Kansas’ population — live in areas that fall short of meeting the 100/20 mbps standard. An estimated 87,000 people don’t have access to speeds of 25/3 mbps. 

Why fiber-optic broadband is better

All money received through the Broadband Acceleration Grant must be spent directly on the construction of broadband infrastructure. In EpicTouch’s case, most of the company’s funds have gone toward paying contractors to bury fiber lines, Scott said. 

While Liberal residents have had access to multiple wireless and cable options, EpicTouch is the first to offer fiber options in the city — an option that Scott said offers more reliable speeds. 

With wireless technology, the electronic components grow outdated quickly, and the internet can’t handle the same capacity fiber can, Scott added. Wireless can also be interrupted by the weather or obstacles such as buildings or trees blocking the connection. Broadband offers a direct connection and doesn’t require households to share with other households. 

“A big selling point with fiber is that once you put that facility in, really all you’re changing is the electronics,” Scott said. “The cost may be higher initially, but it’s a future-proof investment.”

The fiber-optic broadband installed by EpicTouch costs more than the previous internet services Lisa Hatcher has paid for, but it’s a better value, she said. 

Hatcher hasn’t heard any complaints from other community members about the broadband installed by EpicTouch, but only a fraction of the homes and businesses in town have been reached so far, she said. 

“You’ve got part of the community that still doesn’t have access to reliable internet,” Hatcher added. “They have the exact same frustration that I had. If they can’t have reliable internet, they’re frustrated.”

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Gretchen Lenth is The Wichita Beacon’s data intern through the Dow Jones News Fund. Follow her on Twitter @GretchenLenth.